In Defence of Single-Member Plurality

Adopting a ranked ballot would in effect convert our single-member plurality into a system of single-member majority, like the electoral system for Australia’s House of Representatives, since it would still rely on single-member geographic constituencies and not party lists. Such a reform would not alter our system as radically as would a proportional voting system, but it could very produce mediocrity and would probably most benefit the Liberals, as a second-choice party, in Canada’s two-party-plus system. However, adopting a proportional system like mixed-member proportional, as the New Democrats would wish, would prove a radical break with our tradition.

Our system of government and British tradition flow not from a rationalist, technocratic Continental project, but instead of the accumulated practice and wisdom of centuries of evolution through common sense and trial and error.[1] Proportional representation is foreign to the British tradition, notwithstanding New Zealand’s reform of 1996; instead, it sprung from a Continental European construction in which effective parliamentary government and Responsible Government were imposed by rigidly codified constitutions and not until after various regional, sectarian, and linguistic groups had enough leverage to demand a system that would not weaken them as individual entities and force them to combine into effective governing parties.[2] Proportional representation leads to hung parliaments, which in turn lead to coalition governments and the inter-elite accommodation inherent to forming coalition governments, which, in effect, makes elections less significant than they might appear.

The Queen’s business must always carry on, which means that the ministry of the day must always be able to pass supply through the House of Commons. If the ministry cannot control the agenda of the Commons and obtain supplies for the Crown, then either there must be a new ministry (mid-parliamentary change of government) or a new parliament (fresh elections). Parties evolved in our system so that the House of Commons could support a government. The proponents of proportional representation have got it all backwards: parliament does not exist in order to serve parties; instead, it exists in order to support a government that can carry out the Queen’s business.[3] Unlike the horseshoe-shaped consensus parliaments of Continental Europe, which reformers here exalt, our House of Commons consists of two sides; to the Speaker’s right sits the Ministry and government backbenchers, and to his left sits the opposition, the largest party of which acts as the government-in-waiting. As Peter Hitchens argues:

The electoral system is not there for the good of the parties, but for the good of the country.It has two irreplaceable and unique characteristics. The first is that it provides strong government, constantly challenged by a vigilant and ambitious opposition.The next is that it allows the people, when enraged or otherwise disappointed by a bad government, to turn it out completely.[4]

In short, single-member plurality is for the good of the country; the  in contrast, proportional systems serve political parties themselves, particularly small irrelevant parties like the Greens which exist only in the hope of achieving what Pepall calls a grossly disproportionate “imbalance of power” in hung parliaments by suspending itself like the Sword of Damocles over the government’s head and extorting absurd demands from it in order to cater to the narrowest slices of the electorate. Under mixed-member proportional, we could no longer say that we elect members of parliament alone; instead, with one ballot, we would elect some members, and on another we would elect parties instead, but not the lists that determine the order in which parties fill up their quotas or the proportional seats distributed in order to match their share of seats with their seat of the popular vote. Proportional representation — whether pure or mixed-member proportional — springs from the false and presumed premise that the House of Commons exists to support parties, when in fact parties evolved in order to support ministries that could successfully carry out the Queen’s business and sustain their parliamentary majorities.  Political parties aggregate interests and exist in order to form government, and being in government is about taking responsibility for acts of the Crown and making decisions. Governing is about making decisions to the exclusive of all others; it is not about making multiple decisions in proportion to the share of votes that different parties and their platforms won in the previous general election. Ultimately, this is why the people as a whole — the constituent body of the realm — will invariably be unhappy or dissatisfied with what the government of the day does. As Pepall says, “to govern is to choose.”[5]

We cannot allow the proponents of mixed-member proportional to portray theirs as the only “legitimate” or morally righteous option, as if converting to this proportional system were a sacred and undeniable truth. As with everything else in politics, they have calculated their reform for political gain, which is why small parties that would otherwise have no chance in forming government most strongly support this system and why Elizabeth May has emerged as its most fervent advocate in Canada.

These constitutional vandals would presume to destroy the organic architecture of our system by importing this rationalist, mechanical Continental European monstrosity. It is little wonder, therefore, that those who support mixed-member proportional are also more likely to support codifying constitutional conventions and imposing true fixed-term parliaments, constructive non-confidence, confirmation voting, and the inter-elite accommodation of coalition government formation and ever-shifting coalition cabinets — the complete dissonant score of Continental European parliamentarism, exemplified by Belgium.

[1] John Pepall, Against Reform (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2010), 4.
[2] John Pepall, Against Reform (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2010), 34.
[3] John Pepall, Against Reform (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2010), 34.
[4] Peter Hitchens, “On ‘Legitimacy’ and Saving FPTP,” The Mail on Sunday, 7 May 2015.
[5] John Pepall, Against Reform (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 30.

Similar Posts:


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Electoral Reform, Reform. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to In Defence of Single-Member Plurality

  1. simonras says:

    While I agree claiming change is inevitable is quite dismissive of contrary and reasonable views, a few aspects of standard pro-FPTP arguments have always felt a bit shaky:

    1. It’s often said that, in a Westminster system, we don’t elect governments; we elect parliaments, the composition of which determines the government. I don’t see how a proportional rep or AV are fundamentally any different. If anything, pro rep is more likely to enhance this principle.

    2. How do “the people” turn out a tired government when our current system has no capacity to express what they want beyond the level of an individual riding?

    3. If inter-elite accommodate is anti-democratic, is a coalition government in an FPTP parliament a la UK 2010-15 also anti-democratic if it provides stability and government control of the House’s agenda?

    4. There are forms of PR such as in Demmark where voters pick candidates instead of parties, although no one here brings them up as an option for some reason. Does that not meet the goal of Parliament serving people rather than parties?

    Thanks for your blogging work – always an engaging read.


I invite reasonable questions and comments; all others will be prorogued or dissolved.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s